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How to make splitting the bill in restaurants less awkward

It’s one of the great debates of our time: do you split the bill equally between you when you go out for dinner, or should you only pay for what you ordered…? Campaigning journalist Alex Holder grills the experts to discover the fairest (and least awkward) solution.

First things first: it’s really not that difficult to work out what you had at the end of a meal and then split the bill accordingly (despite what we’ve told ourselves over and over again). The real reason splitting the bill feels so awkward is because it’s the moment we have to confront how we feel about money versus how everyone else around the table feels about money.

We avoid money conversations at all costs, but the moment the bill arrives that conversation seems unavoidable. We throw our cards down and say, “Shall we split it down the middle?” so that we don’t have to discuss with friends the relative cost of the fish compared to the burger. What is it that we’re afraid of really? What is truly driving the awkwardness? Why do we turn a simple transaction into an anxiety-inducing event?

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“I don’t want to accept that the experience we’ve just shared is tied to money,” my cousin tells me. She would always rather pay for everybody than have to discuss the bill with fellow diners. Freud made an observation about his clients that is comparable to the uneasiness we repeatedly feel when splitting the bill: many of his clients were rich, yet he noticed that they had issues paying him. He concluded that this was because of the intimacy of what they had just experienced – talking therapy. They found having to hand over cash at the end of such a personal experience difficult. 

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Splitting the bill in restaurants: “OK, so you had a starter but I had an extra glass of wine…”

There is a level of bonding and intimacy that we get from eating with people, and it can feel inappropriate to immediately follow that with a calculation about money. Maybe it’s because paying different amounts can feel like a rejection of the idea that it was a shared experience, which has led to “Let’s split it equally” becoming the cultural norm.

Woe betide anyone who tries to go against that grain at the last minute, forcing everyone to get their calculators out. “If you plan to go against a cultural norm, it can be better to work out details up front, at the start of the meal,” Brad Klontz says. And that’s the point, isn’t it: none of this would be so excruciating if we didn’t have the cultural expectation of splitting the bill evenly. 

But is it just a British politeness thing? Every culture has a specific way of splitting the bill. Brad lives in Hawaii, which, he tells me, “has a very Asian culture. The cultural norm here is, ‘I pay this time, you pay next time’, but the agreement is unspoken. I say ‘I’ve got it’, and the other person makes a mental note and pays next time. But my wife, she went to school on the mainland in the US, and when she first got there she would say ‘I’ll pay’, but no one ever reciprocated. People just thought she was rich! It took weeks until she realised no one was going to buy her lunch for her. Finally she realised that it was a different cultural norm.”

My friend talks about how dining out in Rome with Italians was a revelation: “Conversation didn’t break, everyone just threw their cards down. I liked how seamless it was. The intimacy was preserved.”

I spoke to Helen Russell, author of the brilliant The Year of Living Danishly, in which she chronicled her move from London to a rural town in Denmark, and asked her if the Danes did bill-splitting any differently from the British. “If you go out for a meal with friends, when paying, you either go up and pay for just your own or the server charges you for what you have had, so there is never an awkward splitting of the bill. Going out is so expensive, and people know it is such a treat that they make paying easy and fair.”

The Danish method with the server taking all responsibility sounds pretty chilled for every diner, the Hawaiian way sounds as fraught with imbalance and social anxiety as splitting the bill equally, and as for my friend’s experience eating with Italians in Rome, well it only feels that easy if there’s financial parity within the group.

pizza pasta
Splitting the bill in restaurants: “Some of us don’t have the luxury of avoiding money conversations, yet putting our hand up at the end of a meal to say ‘I ate less’ or ‘I didn’t drink’ can be nerve-racking”

The British cultural norm is to split the bill evenly and to try to all vaguely eat at a similar level; it’s why we often ask each other “Are we having starters?” as we eye up the menu. But in a world where we’re likely to earn different amounts to our friends, and where the cost of living can be really high (hello, London’s £5.50 pints), this won’t work for everybody. It’s interesting that the expense of eating out means Denmark prioritises fairness over avoiding social tension, and I’m left wondering why we don’t do this more often.

Some of us don’t have the luxury of avoiding money conversations, yet putting our hand up at the end of a meal to say “I ate less” or “I didn’t drink” can be nerve-racking, and make us feel like the killjoy. Splitting the bill equally also means every diner lacks autonomy. It removes our ability to budget. It puts the whole table at the whim of the most extravagant person. And it’s been proven that we spend more when we know we’re splitting the bill: a study showed that we spend 36 per cent more money when we know the bill will be split equally than when we know we are only paying for what we had.

“The problem arises when you have different financial comfort zones,” says Brad. “Splitting the bill works great if you go to a place that you can both equally afford that’s right within your budget and you’re ordering similar things that cost a similar amount. But problems start to arise if one of you has much more money than the other. Spending habits also make a difference. It’s a combination of how much money you each have versus how easily you each spend money. That’s where the conflicts arise.”

Splitting the bill, a relatively small calculation, a minor ritual, has become so loaded with negative emotions and it’s all because we’re trying to pretend that money doesn’t matter. And that is just not the case. Even if it doesn’t matter to you, it probably matters to someone at the table. As Brad says, “What’s the experience to sit down and watch a friend order an expensive bottle of wine, an appetiser, an expensive meal, a dessert, that you know you can’t afford? What is that dining experience like for you? My guess is that it is not an enjoyable experience.”

dinner with friends
Splitting the bill in restaurants: Worried about ending up somewhere too expensive? Say something before the location is decided

Brad’s words make me think that upfront discussion is the only way to make sure everyone around the table is comfortable, and that money doesn’t become such a big sticking point of an intimate evening. The easiest kind of conversation to have is to make sure that where you are dining suits everyone. If you are worried about ending up somewhere too expensive then say something before a place is even decided. 

“Let’s go to Deedee’s, the food is really good and cheap, I can book us a table if everyone is up for it?”, is a much easier conversation than speaking out when the bill arrives at a restaurant you knew was out of your price range. Also, only going out when you can afford it rather than accepting every single dinner invitation means quality nights out over many evenings sweating over the bill coming.

If you’re rich enough that the bill isn’t a concern of yours then check with friends that everyone is OK with the restaurant. Be aware of your own privilege, price down to what the person with the least amount of money can afford and try not to mindlessly order wine from the bottom of the list. These conversations will be much easier if you’ve been open with your friends about salaries and financial situations. Understanding everyone’s situation makes group decision-making simpler.

And then for everyone, it helps to accept before you meet friends for dinner that you’re not paying for what you eat or drink, you are paying for a night out with friends. Change your mindset about the prices on the menu – you are paying for being served, for conversation, for laughs with your friends. You’re not just paying £15 for a burger. The cultural norm of splitting the bill means taking the individual menu prices with a pinch and paying collectively for a joint experience. Even if John did have a Mimosa to start.

This article was originally published in April 2019

Open Up: The Power of Talking About Money by Alex Holder is published by Serpent’s Tail

Images: Getty, Unsplash

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